One of New Orleans' city-owned surveillance cameras on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Decatur St. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The French Quarter, already one of the most heavily surveilled parts of New Orleans, could soon see a significant expansion of city-controlled crime cameras and other surveillance equipment under a proposal before the New Orleans City Council. 

The French Quarter Management District (FQMD), a public agency tasked with “enhancing public safety and sanitation” in the historic district, is asking the council to increase its budget by $700,000, most of which would go to installing city-owned surveillance cameras, now largely concentrated along Bourbon Street, throughout the neighborhood.

The plan would place license plate readers at every entry point to the French Quarter, and would create camera coverage on nearly every square block of the neighborhood with feeds going to the city’s Real Time Crime Center, the surveillance hub located on North Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. 

The plan includes $37,500 to rent 20 license plate readers for a year, $420,000 to buy 70 new cameras and $70,000 for data plans to connect those cameras to the Real Time Crime Center. The plan also includes $195,000 for new streetlights and $50,000 for homeless case managers. 

The City Council still needs to approve the funding. Councilman Joe Giarrusso said the vote will happen at the council’s September 15 meeting.

The French Quarter surveillance expansion would be paid for through the French Quarter Economic Development District, or FQEDD — a state-created body that’s funded through a quarter cent sales tax only levied within the French Quarter. That tax was first put in place in 2016 and was previously used to pay for supplemental patrols by the Louisiana State Police. 

The tax was renewed last year through a ballot initiative — only voted on by French Quarter residents. But some key changes were made to where the money would go. Instead of funding the State Police patrols, the money is now administered by the FQMD, a state-created body that for years managed a deployment of off-duty police officers called the French Quarter Patrol. 

The French Quarter Patrol had previously been funded by local tourism industry groups, but that money dried up during the pandemic. The FQMD now operates a similar “supplemental police patrol program” that pays off-duty officers for overtime patrol shifts using the FQEDD tax proceeds. 

The funds raised by the FQEDD are dedicated to funding that patrol program. The ballot initiative explicitly dictated that the first $2 million raised by the tax would be dedicated to the supplemental patrols, with any additional funds “divided between additional patrols and public safety programs (including homeless assistance).”  

According to the agreement that governs the program, the FQMD is required to get budget approval from the FQEDD, which is made up of the seven City Council members. 

The original 2022 FQEDD budget approved by the council was for $2.3 million. But at a Thursday meeting of the council’s budget committee, FQMD Executive Director Karley Frankic said that the agency now expects the tax to bring over $3 million.

Frankic told council members that the roughly $700,000 in budget additions were largely influenced by requests from the New Orleans Police Department and that the public had numerous opportunities to give their input during public FQMD meetings. She added that the adjustments were also discussed during a public FQEDD meeting in July and at three meetings of the FQEDD’s “agreement monitors,” a group that includes representatives from the city’s executive branch, the City Council and the NOPD’s 8th District. 

“Because NOPD officer numbers continue to decrease, we’re trying to focus on force multipliers,” Frankic said on Thursday. The NOPD has recently seen its ranks shrink below 1,000 officers, the lowest count in decades.

The French Quarter already has roughly 30 city-owned cameras, according to an online map maintained by the city. There are also additional privately owned cameras in the French Quarter whose owners have agreed to feed footage to the Real Time Crime Center under the Safecam Platinum program, which allows residents and businesses to give the city access to their private camera feeds. The city doesn’t maintain a map of Safecam Platinum cameras, so it’s not clear exactly how many are already in the neighborhood.

The vast majority of the 30 city-owned cameras in the French Quarter are installed along Bourbon Street. The new plan proposes installing 70 new cameras “covering each block on Decatur, Chartres, Royal, Dauphine, Burgundy, N. Rampart.” 

“They are real time, so we are able to have folks in the Real Time Crime Center monitoring those cameras and identify areas of suspicious activity,” Frankic said at a July meeting of the FQEDD. 

When the city’s camera network was first introduced in 2017, officials told the public it was a “complaint-based” system — meaning the city would check footage after a crime was reported to gather evidence, rather than monitor the feeds in real time. But it has become increasingly clear that isn’t entirely true. 

“So while they do not have enough officers to fully patrol the quarter, they can identify hot spots and respond to those as the Real Time Crime Center identifies them,” Frankic said in July. “This is also beneficial for drug dealing, where we see suspicious activities at the Real Time Crime Center, officers can respond to that.”

She said officers had been able to remove a number of guns from the quarter using that method. 

District C Councilman Freddie King, whose district includes the French Quarter, asked Frankic on Thursday whether the funding was “an absolute necessity.”

Frankic said yes, citing increasing crime rates and their effect on local businesses. She said some have had trouble staffing, especially during late shifts, due to crime.

“We have businesses that are leaving the French Quarter because of the crime there,” she said. “Staff are concerned about working in the French Quarter.” 

Council votes to add millions in funding to new Recreation and Culture Fund

The council budget committee on Thursday also voted to advance an ordinance that would put $7 million into the newly created New Orleans Recreation and Culture Fund. That fund was formally created by the council earlier this summer.

According to the ordinance establishing the fund, it “shall be used exclusively to establish a merit-based grant program to fund not-for-profit community organizations, youth recreation organizations and select culture bearers that contribute substantially to the well-being, development, and growth of the New Orleans community.”

“We have all this money that flows into the city,” Councilman JP Morrell said. “And these organizations that desperately need money, they don’t know how to access it. Because the process has become so difficult that if you’re in the know, you know how to get through city departments to know what’s there. But there’s no transparent process through which you can just apply.”

Morrell said that previously, the only way the council could award grants directly to local nonprofits was through two programs funded through agreements with Cox Communications and Harrahs Casino. But several council members agreed those programs don’t come close to providing enough funding to satisfy all the applications they get. Together, the two programs provide a combined $365,000 a year.

With $7 million, the council hopes to do much more. That $7 million will come from unspent dollars from the city’s general fund, according to a representative from Morrell’s office. 

“So often, the city is trying to build programs to help our community,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “But there are already so many existing programs within the community doing great work that actually just need a little bit of a boost to have an impact. And that’s why I think this fund is so important because we hear that all the time.”

The ordinance received widespread support on the council committee, and looks to have a clear path to final approval at the council’s Sept. 15 meeting. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...